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What is holding the African Standby Force back?
10 May 2017

The Peace and Security Council (PSC) held a meeting to discuss the African Standby Force (ASF) on 6 April 2017 amid growing scepticism around the actual deployment of the mechanism. The African Union (AU) has been called upon to intervene in various crises, but instead of deploying the ASF it has opted for ad hoc arrangements. Experts believe that the ASF doctrine should be reviewed in line with current developments on the continent. The doctrine should take shifting regional alliances into account, and the debate over the desirability of the African Capacity for Rapid Intervention in Crises (ACIRC) should be put to rest once and for all.

Last year the ASF was declared fully operational and ready for deployment. This was after the AMANI Africa II field training exercise that took place in South Africa in October and November 2015. The AU Commission also developed a five-year work plan for the ASF in late 2016.

So what is keeping the AU from deploying the ASF in the many crises and conflicts on the continent?

Many policy experts maintain that the ASF framework, which was developed 14 years ago, must be reviewed to meet current realities if the AU is serious about deploying the mechanism. Indeed, the AU Peace Operations Support Division (PSOD) has started discussions on reviewing the ASF doctrine and enhancing its deployment capabilities.

Policy experts are concerned that the six scenarios for deployment are outdated
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There are also well-documented challenges in terms of funding and a lack of political will, which in many cases hamper the AU’s interventions.

What needs to be reviewed?

Issues with the scenarios for deployment

Policy experts are concerned that the six scenarios* for ASF deployment are outdated. These scenarios range from military advisory missions to peacekeeping and intervention operations. Current AU practice shows that these categories do not reflect reality, and often two or more of the prescribed scenarios are involved in AU operations.

The AU’s peace operations in Somalia, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Mali, for example, all fall under scenarios 4 and 5 of the ASF framework. These missions went beyond traditional peacekeeping operations (scenario 4) aimed at deterring violence and took on proactive stance, whereby attacks were launched on sophisticated armed groups that posed a significant threat to the peace process.

In the case of Somalia, the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) took on various stabilisation roles to restore and expand state authority to areas that had been under the control of al-Shabaab.

Some experts have lauded the AU for its adaptability in volatile situations, such as that in Somalia, where the UN is unwilling to deploy until a comprehensive agreement is reached. Others hold that the lack of clear strategic guidance on the scope of AU peace operations threatens the efficiency and impartiality of AU missions.

The AU needs a clear doctrine and policy framework on peace support operations
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If the scenarios were revised, this would also provide updated contexts on how the ASF tool could respond to different conflicts and humanitarian crises.

Riana Paneras, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies’ office in Addis Ababa, argues that ‘it is necessary to revise the ASF doctrine, but the AU also needs a clear doctrine and policy framework on peace support operations. It is unfortunate that the ASF became an end in itself and the main focus in all [the] training and plans of the PSOD, whereas the ASF is actually only a tool to be used for peace operations on the continent, whether in conflict areas or for other emergencies, such as the Ebola crisis or other disasters.’  

Lack of clarity in deploying regional standby forces

The ASF was designed to consist of uniformly trained standby forces in the five regions of Africa – North, East, Central, West and South. However, there is a lack of clarity on whether each of the regional standby forces will be deployed as a coherent entity, as the ASF doctrine suggests.

Some policy experts argue that it will be difficult to deploy the standby forces in a uniform manner. Lessons from African peace efforts show that each conflict has its own unique set of interested parties and capacities, which may not be limited to the regional arrangement at any given time.

In the AU’s missions in Burundi (AMIB, 2003), Sudan (UNAMID) and Somalia (AMISOM) it has relied on troops from capable and willing member states rather than a solely regional arrangement. In Somalia the involvement of regional actors such as Kenya and Ethiopia is sometimes seen as a hurdle to the peace process. In Mali the mission had a strong regional component but it took too long to deploy at the end of 2012, when time was of the essence. This was owing to troop-contributing countries’ lack of capacity.

Towards rapid deployment

The ASF is expected to be deployed within 14 days in emergencies featuring war crimes
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Concerns about deploying a regional standby force become more apparent in cases where there is a need for rapid deployment. The ASF is expected to be deployed within 14 days in emergencies featuring war crimes, genocide and gross human rights abuses. But it will be difficult to ensure rapid deployment in cases where members of a regional standby arrangement are incapable and/or unwilling to deploy.

Cedric de Coning, a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, maintains that Africa’s capacity to deploy rapidly resides at the national level, not at the regional level. He argues that while there is a need for a pre-identified, trained and verified regional standby force, rapid deployment should be based on the capacity, willingness and readiness of individual states to deploy to a given conflict on the continent.

Lessons from ACIRC

ACIRC was formed in 2013 to provide an interim arrangement for a coalition of capable member states to deploy rapidly across the continent when authorised by the PSC.

Although it has not been deployed yet, ACIRC draws from the commitments of its 14 voluntary member states. The mechanism is meant to circumvent reliance on the long-awaited regional arrangements, but its limited membership affects its ability to deploy.

ACIRC was formed to provide an interim arrangement for a coalition of capable member states
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Some members of the PSC – and the AU Assembly – consider ACIRC a parallel structure that detracts attention from the ASF. According to reports, in early 2015 Nigeria rejected South Africa’s offer to put ACIRC to use in the fight against Boko Haram. The fact that the PSC is responsible for authorising ACIRC also means that some PSC members could block its authorisation.

Additionally, the willingness and interests of ACIRC’s 14 member states are determining factors in its deployment. Notably, when the terrorist threat in Mali and the Sahel region became troublesome, ACIRC did not come up for deployment despite various AU-led discussions to establish an African force in the region. Rather, the concerned leaders of the G5 Sahel established a joint mission early this year. Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger, which are members of the G5 Sahel (together with Mali and Mauritania), also belong to ACIRC.

Some experts hold that the ASF mechanism – which has the buy-in of all African states – should be equipped with a flexible framework to enable a coalition of willing members to intervene, like ACIRC.

The command and control of the ASF

In addition, there is not enough clarity on whether the five standby forces can be mandated by their regional economic communities (RECs).

Currently, the PSC is the highest decision-making body in terms of authorising the ASF, while the standby forces come from the five regions, overseen by the RECs.

Experts insist on the primary role of the PSC in mandating peace operations
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Although the AU insists on its primary responsibility for peace and security in Africa, events such as the Economic Community of West African States’ deployment to The Gambia early this year show that RECs may choose to establish a mission and deploy troops before getting the explicit approval of the PSC. This reduces delays and enhances rapid response, but it also weakens the role of the PSC in coordinating peace and security on the continent.

Several experts insist on the primary role of the PSC in mandating peace operations, given that conflict occurrences have effects that go beyond the relevant subregion.

In the coming months a huge task lies ahead of the AU and its partners to ensure that the ASF can in fact be deployed to provide solutions to Africa’s crises. This requires long-term considerations that provide for a pragmatic approach and at the same time foster unity and consensus among AU member states and Africa’s subregions.

*ASF deployment scenarios include:


ASF mission scenarios

Scenario 1

AU/regional military advice to a political mission

Scenario 2

AU/regional observer mission co-deployed with UN mission

Scenario 3

Stand-alone AU/regional observer mission

Scenario 4

AU/regional peacekeeping force (PKF) for Chapter VI and preventive deployment missions

Scenario 5

AU PKF for complex multidimensional peacekeeping mission, low-level spoilers (a feature of many current conflicts)

Scenario 6

AU intervention – e.g. genocide situations where international community does not act promptly

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